National Urban League
“When we foolishly maximize the minimum and minimize the maximum, we sign the warrant for our own day of doom. It is this moral lag in our thing-oriented society that blinds us to the human reality around us and encourages us in the greed and the exploitation, which creates the sector of poverty in the midst of wealth. Again we have deluded ourselves into believing the myth that Capitalism grew and prospered out of the protestant ethic of hard work and sacrifice. The fact is that Capitalism was built on the exploitation and suffering of black slaves and continues to thrive on the exploitation of the poor both black and white, both here and abroad.” – Martin Luther King Jr.
As a civil rights organization that worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the April 4 anniversary of King’s assassination has always been a somber day of remembrance for the National Urban League.
This year, the 50th anniversary is an especially poignant one, presenting an opportunity to examine the progress of racial equality over the last half-century and examining King’s legacy through the lens of that history.
On Wednesday, I had the honor of speaking at the official 50th Anniversary Commemoration at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee.
The museum occupies the former Lorraine Motel where King was shot to death. At 6:01 p.m., the moment of his death, bells at the museum rang. To symbolize the news of his death rippling across the country and around the world, bells were scheduled to ring nationally at 6:05 p.m. and internationally at 6:07 p.m.
I was a child at the time of King’s death, but I remember the devastation of my parents, Dutch and Sybil Morial, who knew him personally. My mother first met King when he was a graduate student at Boston University, where she was an undergraduate. She describes the day in her memoir, Witness to Change: From Jim Crow to Political Empowerment.
He knew it was his time. He had said it … “I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.” He knew it, but we didn’t. And we didn’t understand his death. I was inconsolable.
“Now that Martin is gone, what will become of the movement?” I asked my father. He replied, “It will go on. It must.” And it did.
And now, 50 years later, the country asks itself the same question: What will become of the movement? The museum’s commemoration is part of its yearlong exploration of the theme, “MLK50 – Where Do We Go From Here.”
It’s seldom emphasized that the reason King was in Memphis April 4, 1968, was to support the city’s striking sanitation workers. Earlier in the year, a worker had been crushed to death by malfunctioning equipment, leading 1,300 men to walk off their jobs to protest dangerous conditions and low pay.
Memphis was the first stop in his Poor People’s Campaign, a massive march on Washington planned for later that year. King saw the Poor People’s Campaign as an expansion of his movement from civil rights to human rights, an effort to unite all marginalized people.
His plan for the Poor People’s Campaign included petitioning the federal government to prioritize helping the poor with a $30 billion anti-poverty package that included, among other demands, a commitment to full employment, a guaranteed annual income measure and more low-income housing.
Sadly, the campaign floundered as a result of the sudden loss of his leadership. With an eye toward this history, the National Urban League has established robust programs to cultivate and nurture leadership potential within and without our movement. Our Emerging Leaders Program is a competitive, 12-month development opportunity for professionals that provide a unique chance to master analytical and critical leadership skills in the nonprofit sector. Walmart Foundation, a sponsor of Wednesday’s ceremony, has made its support of Emerging Leaders and other leadership training initiatives a centerpiece of a communitywide commitment to honoring King’s legacy.
With the help of a new generation of leaders, the Poor People’s Campaign has been revived, and begins a series of local action, peaceful rallies and protests in April. In alignment with the National Urban League’s mission of economic empowerment and opportunity, we look forward to helping the spirit of King’s legacy live on through sustained activism.
Marc H. Morial, former mayor of New Orleans, is president and CEO of the National Urban League. He can be reached through http://nul.iamempowered.com.